- 20 May 22
The Things They Carried
Much of David Park’s previous, award-wining work has been set in his native Northern Ireland, whether it be 1992’s debut The Healing, 2008’s The Truth Commissioner, or The Big Snow (2002) set against the harsh winter of 1963, the one my auld lad used to go on about anytime I gave out about the heating (“You think this is cold?” Etc).
Breaking from this tradition, Spies In Canaan, is not set up North – or the coast of the Levantine Sea - but begins in modern America before returning to the closing chaos of the Vietnam war. Michael Miller’s grief at the passing of his wife Julia is disturbed by a DVD that arrives in the post, dragging him back into the past, a place Miller knows you can't trust "and sometimes, if you stumble into it unaware, it can pull you in like quicksand, drag you down until you go under." Miller's remembrances of the peacefulness of the library, the endless stretch of small-town prairie horizon he grew up with, and dreams driven by Hemingway and Steinbeck give way, with cinematographer's skill from Park, to the chaotic streets of early-seventies Saigon, a place with no horizon and no empty spaces. As the war moves towards the messy end we know is coming, the locals all ask the Americans the same question, "will you stay?"
Miller has been posted to Saigon after most other Americans had already left. He bonds with Corley, another REMF (rear-echelon motherfucker) over their shared love of literature. They're idealistic but idealism "had been gradually eroded when the reality of the price needing to be paid rendered itself inescapably visible with every flag-draped coffin shouldered across airport runways." The Paris Peace Accords are falling apart and things are turning darker still. Miller is called to the embassy to meet with senior CIA analyst, Ignatius Donovan.
Donovan knows the war is lost and all that can be hoped for is to get out in one piece, and his less than stellar moral approach to doing just that is a shock to Miller. He witnesses his ruthless behaviour in the interrogation centre, and the fate of Tuyen, the daughter of restaurant owners known to Donovan. At the same time, Corley sees a village destroyed but his superiors only want lies. Perhaps Corley and Miller are the spies in Canaan in the Sunday-school song that Miller remembers as the book opens? In the Book Of Numbers, the fourth book of both the Old Testament and the Jewish Tora, twelve spies were sent by Moses into the promised land of Canaan. Ten spies came back doubting what God had promised them, which meant the Israelites had to wander the desert for a further forty years. Was Vietnam a promised land, a promised victory, that God failed to deliver to America and has the American consciousness wandered under the shadow of that lost promise in the decades since?
Not everyone makes it onto those choppers when Saigon falls. Back in the today, the DVD, sent by Corley who's now a documentary maker, reveals information on Donovan’s whereabouts. Michael has one question for him.
Park’s brilliant novel deals, as the jacket says, with guilt, atonement and ( a kind of) redemption. Joshua and Caleb were the two spies that believed God would grant what was promised. When the forty years had passed, they alone out of their generation were allowed to enter the promised land. Can Donovan's actions now grant him a similar reprieve?
With its superbly rich and descriptive language – a tornado, the desert, and the teeming-with-life streets of Saigon in particular all come alive under his pen – and razor sharp dialogue, the only complaint one might level at Park's book is that it's too short but it's near-perfect just the way it is. Steinbeck and Hemingway have already been mentioned, with Corley and Martin expressing an admiration for Fitzgerald too. It's no stretch to compare the faultless Spies In Canaan to those writers’ lauded work.